Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Korach 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Korach 5760/1 July 2000(8 July abroad)


Gary A. Rendsburg

Cornell University

Biblical studies in the last twenty years has witnessed nothing less than a revolution in its approach to the Bible. With the rise of modern biblical scholarship in the mid-19th century, researchers were interested mainly in historical issues. Archaeological finds from throughout the Near East provided the historical approach with a steady stream of discoveries with which to work and with which to coordinate the biblical account. By contrast, in the last two decades, a younger generation of scholars has turned to viewing the Bible as literature. These individuals are less interested in understanding the Bible as history, but are driven to further our knowledge of how the Bible operates on a literary plane. As such, younger scholars are more likely to be literary scholars than true historians. They bring to the Bible the tools of comparative literature, the same tools that are employed in the study of any corpus of literature.

The seeds of this approach are to be found in the work of Martin Buber. This singular individual is better known for his philosophical writing, but he also wrote many important studies on the Bible. These latter works are now gaining popularity, decades after Buber's death. One of Buber's findings is the Leitwort, or leading word, defined as a word which repeats throughout a story, leading the reader from one scene to the next. In English literary style, we are taught to vary our vocabulary; but in ancient Hebrew literary style, the preferred approach was to repeat the same word again and again. In addition, the writing style called for like-sounding words to be used in close proximity to the Leitwoerter in order to enhance the text through alliteration.

This week's Torah reading, Parashat Korach, provides an excellent opportunity to see this method at work. The reading begins (in Numbers 16) with the revolt led by Korach, Datan, and Aviram. These three men and their followers believe that leadership should not be concentrated solely in the hands of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe responds first to Korach about the issues that his fellow Levite found important, namely, the priesthood (vv. 8-11). Then he summons Datan and Aviram, presumably to discuss the general leadership issues with which they were concerned, but these two men refuse to come (v. 12).

Instead of using the common Hebrew verb bo' "come," the text here uses an unexpected verb in the words lo' na'aleh "we will not go up." The meaning is essentially the same-note that Saadia Gaon glossed lo' na'aleh "we will not go up" with lo' navo' 'elekha "we will not come to you"-but the word choice is crucial. In the next verse, the men continue speaking by saying "is it too little that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would even rule over us" (v. 13). The Hebrew word for "you brought us up" is he'elitanu, invoking the same verbal root as the phrase lo' na'aleh "we will not go up." Furthermore, the word "over us" is the alliterative 'alenu. Finally, to close out the string of like-sounding words, the men repeat the phrase lo' na'aleh "we will not go up" at the end of their speech (v. 14).

One should recall that in antiquity the reading process was an oral/aural one. An individual held the parchment roll in hand and read the text aloud for all who were gathered to hear. Silent reading did not exist. (Obviously, Jewish tradition retains this system of reading in the public reading of the Torah.) As a result, the audience assembled to listen to the reading would hear the repeated sounds and would recognize the literary intent of the text guiding the reader through the use of such sounds.

The next time we encounter the "leading word" is several paragraphs later. G-d has decided how to punish the rebels, at which point he says to Moshe "get up from about the dwelling of Korach, Datan, and Aviram" (v. 24). Here the verb chosen is the unexpected he'alu "get up," from the same root as the aforementioned verbs "go up" and "bring up." Once more, a sign that this usage is unusual is the fact that Saadia felt the need to explain it to his readership with the gloss histalqu "get away." Finally, the verb is used again several verses later in the statement "they got up from the dwelling of Korach, Datan, and Aviram" (v. 27), this time with a different preposition:vaye'alu me'al "they got up from" (instead of "from about") which further alliterates.

After so many uses of the verbal root 'alah in different conjugations, with the meanings "go up, bring up, get up," and with the presence of several other words which alliterate therewith, the reader is ready for the punch line. But now, instead of another instance of the same root, we learn the punishment that G-d has in store for the rebels. Moshe warns that if "they will go down alive to Sheol" we-yardu hayyim she'ola (v. 30), then indeed the men will have spurned G-d. Naturally, this is exactly what occurs several verses later, wa-yerdu hayyim she'ola "they went down, they and all who were with them, alive to Sheol" (v. 33). The verbal root yarad "go down"-the opposite of 'alah "go up"-has been saved for this crucial point in the story.

The men who would not "go up" because they believed that Moshe had "brought up" the Israelites "to die" in the wilderness, at story's end are punished by having to "go down alive" to the netherworld. Not only is the opposite of "go up" invoked with the word "go down," but the additional pair of opposites "to die" and "alive" appears as well. This connection between the polar verbs "go up" and "go down" was noted already by the Rabbis in Midrash Tanhuma 10, quoted also by Rashi, that in saying "we will not go up" (in v. 12), their own words doomed them, with the resultant descent to Sheol. [1]

In addition, the Torah includes here another literary device centering on the alliterative effect. Above I quoted a portion of v. 30; that verse begins with the following, also in the mouth of Moshe: we-'im beri'a yivra' Hashem "but if the Lord creates a creation," that is to say, if G-d does something unprecedented, then this too will be a sign that Korach, Datan, and Aviram, and their followers, were rebels. The expression is most unusual, [2] so that anyone in the least way familiar with the language of Torah would be struck by its wording. Furthermore, the very form of the noun beri'a is atypical of Biblical Hebrew. Such nouns in the voacalization pattern qetila are common in the language of the Mishna and other post-biblical texts, and they become regular in modern Hebrew (shemira, 'aliya, yerida, etc.), but they are very rare in Biblical Hebrew.

Accordingly, we are led to ask, why is this phrase employed? Professor Moshe Garsiel of Bar-Ilan University has written numerous studies on the use of vocabulary items within the biblical narratives to evoke the names of the characters in the story. [3] In this case, as Garsiel has pointed out, the words we-'im beri'a yivra' bring to mind the name of one of the main rebels, namely, Aviram. In fact, after the initial waw of this phrase, the first five letters-'aleph - mem - bet - resh - yod-form an anagram of the name of Aviram. Moreover, we have an explanation for the use of the atypical form beri'a, because the long i vowel contained therein serves to solidify the sound play on the name of Aviram, which likewise contains a long i vowel. The effect of all this is clear: with this wording, the Torah forges a link between the name of a character and the fate of that character (with, in this case, Aviram serving as a representative for the other leaders, Korach and Datan, and indeed for the entire lot of insurgents).

The analysis presented here is representative of the kind of work that literary scholars are engaged in today. Close reading of biblical narratives always pays big dividends, guiding the reader to the teaching that the Torah wishes to convey.


[1] Other commentators, such as Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Hizquni explained the use of the root 'alah "go up" along different lines. They noted that this verb is used in legal settings in other biblical passages, for example, one "goes up" to the judges, or one "goes up" to the city gate (the place where justice was administered), suggesting that Datan and Aviram understood Moshe's request to appear before him as a legal summons. Ibn Ezra also suggested another possible reason, that the 'Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting) was on higher ground within the camp.

[2] A clear indication of its unusual nature is the fact that almost every major medieval commentator (Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Hizquni, etc.) felt compelled to comment on these words. The main thrust of these commentators (especially Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban [at great length], and Hizquni-though not Ibn Ezra) is that the creation would be something totally new (thus my word choice above "unprecedented").

[3] The largest study is Moshe Garsiel, Biblical Names: A Literary Study of Midrashic Derivations and Puns (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1991 (Hebrew original, 1987).

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